view of forested hills with mist

The Planet Is Suffering. How Do We Write About It?

June 4, 2019

By Leah Worthington

Here’s the thing: The climate is warming, our population is growing, resource consumption is surging, and it isn’t looking so great for us—or our fellow earth-dwelling organisms. Even the United Nation just released a report warning of “unprecedented” decline in environmental health and the threat of imminent extinction for some 1 million species.

As the earth hurtles towards an uncertain future, writers and reporters are also navigating uncharted territory. When it comes to writing about our predicament, how do you tell a story that is truthful without being totally depressing? Appropriately alarming without being alarmist?

James Fahn and Mark Schapiro, environmental writers and professors who teach a graduate course on “Earth Journalism” at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, recently spoke to California Magazine, the college’s alumni association publication, about the state of environmental reporting.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

What exactly is earth journalism, and how does it differ from environmental journalism?

James Fahn: It’s broader than just environmental topics, topics related to the environment and natural resources. It’s about climate change and loss of natural diversity, public and human health, and politics.

Mark Schapiro: The root of environmental journalism is the belief that the environment is separate—you have a political reporter who covers politics, a crime reporter who covers crime, and an environmental reporter who covers the environment. It’s as if the environment has few implications for all the other issues that the media covers. Earth journalism might be a more encompassing way to describe it. It makes you understand that the environment, the earth itself, is an organism with ecological systems that are critical in our ability to sustain ourselves.

How effectively is earth journalism being done right now?

JF: It varies from place to place. In places with a lot of environmental concern—think blue state America—there’s pretty good coverage. In other parts, it doesn’t get the coverage it deserves because there’s a reluctance to report on issues like climate change openly. But I think it’s changing in the U.S., probably because of extreme weather events and understanding that climate change makes extreme weather more likely.

MS: You know, it used to be hard to sell an environmental story. And I think climate change has changed that.

There’s a great concept in the earth sciences which is the trophic cascade, the idea that one thing leads to another leads to another leads to another. Hotter weather leads to new bugs leads to public health crises, and because of that people can no longer subsist, and social systems fall apart. If you look at environmental journalism as identifying the trophic cascades, you realize how everything is connected.

Not every story is going to be a big climate story. But following those threads is going to give you a more complete picture of the ecological systems that sustain the earth.

Recent news suggests that, no matter what we do, we’re sort of screwed, climate-wise. How should the narrative change now that we’ve reached a tipping point?

MS: I get this question all the time—is it over, is there hope? But we don’t really unpack it. Are we screwed here in Berkeley? Things are getting a little hotter and drier, but it’s not a bad place to live.

There are ways to respond. We can slow down the atmospheric turmoil by reducing the fossil fuels. We’re already in climate change, so the idea that we can stop it is ridiculous. The question is what can we do to slow it down?

JF: One approach is to report more on solutions. It has gotten easier because a lot of the solutions have gotten a lot cheaper, a lot more affordable.

Areas where we still struggle are transportation—people love their cars. But even there, there are solutions—electric cars, et cetera. So I think, yes, we need to make the urgency more clear, but we can also mix in reporting on the solutions, saying “this is viable, it’s not going to be easy, but we have a way forward.”

Environmental journalism is often conflated with environmentalism. What’s the difference?

MS: Journalists are not activists. The distinction is so clear. The criteria are: Does your information hold up and are you allowing yourself to test you own hypotheses? It’s the scientific method applied to journalism. Like a scientist, the journalist applies the criteria—question, hypothesis—and if you come up with results that you didn’t expect, then your obligation is to report that as well.

And yet, environmental journalism suggests an inherent desire to enact change. At what point does that cross over into activism?

JF: Journalists believe that the environment is an important topic to cover. It’s important for the public to be aware of these issues and, yes, at some level to act on these issues. What makes us different from activists is we don’t have a specific agenda. We will report on policy options, different kinds of solutions. We’re reporting on climate change and we think it’s an important issue, but we don’t claim to have the answers and we’re not actively advocating certain solutions.

You know, it’s not just journalists who face this issue. Scientists have also been grappling with this. The traditional belief is that they’re just supposed to do the research. But if you do the research and discover that there’s a threat to human civilization….at what point are you required to speak out?

I imagine there’s some concern about preaching to the converted—people like me who consider themselves environmentally aware because, you know, I recycle. Who’s your audience?

MS:  It’s not about telling you how to live. People I have met are like, “Oh yeah I have a swimming pool, but I recycle and I drive a Prius.” And I say, “Hey man, I am not here to judge.”  My job is to tell you what the latest information tells us about the world right now. Then you have to decide what to do about it.

Alarmism is a risk in environmental reporting, but, given what we know, should we be more alarmed?

MS: The danger of being more alarmist is the tendency to be apocalyptic. The alarmism has to be more precise. Here’s a real example: “The consequences of holding the rising sea level at bay in San Francisco are going to cost millions of dollars and therefore you—resident of these communities—are going to have to pay higher taxes.” I think we should have more targeted reporting that actually identifies these precise consequences.

I think overly alarmist writing only gets people to throw their arms up and walk around feeling vaguely uneasy. And then they run into an environmental journalist and say, “Well, I recycle.”

But if the facts are alarming, should writing about them in an alarming way really be called “alarmist”?

JF: You know, it’s interesting the way views change on this. Twenty years ago there were a lot of activists and advocates arguing we should not be focusing on adaptation—adapting to climate change [through] policy or behavior, like [replenishing coastal defenses] or preparing for fiercer storms. We’ve known that climate change is happening for a long time now. But 20 years ago, a lot of climate change activists said it was irresponsible to focus on adaptation because it assumed that [climate change] was going to continue.

[In their view] accepting that climate change is going to happen no matter what created a moral hazard. But even 20 years ago, it was important to focus on adaptation. Journalists had to do the responsible thing and say that.

Is climate change the only issue? What about more traditional environmental journalism?

JF: No, not all climate journalism is about the environment and not all environmental journalism is about the climate. There are other global issues: loss of biodiversity, mass extinction caused by humans and also, I would argue, the oceans—acidification, pollution. Environmental health is the most underreported issue and air pollution alone is the fourth leading cause of mortality [around the world].

The thing about climate change is that it’s such a big issue and affects all the other issues.

MS: You don’t have to be a climate journalist. You can have a deep concern about wildlife diversity or ocean acidification. It’s not just the atmosphere, the oceans. It’s the trophic cascade.

But if we’re talking natural systems and public health, the chances are high there’s going to be a climate dimension. Which is worth thinking about moving forward. Climate is everything. It’s the conditions that we’re in.

This is a shortened version of an article that originally appeared in California Magazine (californiamag.org). 

(Banner photo: by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash)